Comedians get the statesman treatment in our current political climate.
Vanity Fair wrote of Aziz Ansari’s opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live, “what could have been an easy, low-hanging-fruit hit job was instead a thoughtful (yet still hilarious) rumination on the rising trend of racism in the U.S., as well as Donald Trump’s responsibility, as president, to heal a fractured nation.” The New York Times implicitly agreed when it ran the full text of the monologue, as if Ansari himself was a political leader. Just days before, the same paper ran Trump’s inaugural address, albeit with annotations. At the heart of Ansari’s monologue the weekend after Trump’s inauguration was a riff on a “lower case KKK movement, this real casual racism.” He continues:
You know who I’m talking about. There’s like this new, lower-case K.K.K. movement that started — this kind of casual white supremacy. “Oh, let me put my foot in the pool and see how cold this water really is.” No! No! I’m talking about these people that are running around saying stuff like, “Trump won! Go back to Africa!” “Trump won! Go back to Mexico!” They see me: “Trump won, go back — to where you came from.” Yeah. They’re not usually geography buffs.
Is that the plan, by the way? We’re all going to move? All the minorities? Forty-some percent of the country? Every minority’s going to move?
Beyoncé’s going to move? Beyoncé ain’t moving.
A week or so after Trump’s election, Wyatt Cenac tried to get at a similar cognitive divide on One Angry Night in Brooklyn, a free comedy EP you can download at his website. He starts the 17-minute routine slowly, seemingly trying to process the reality of what just happened, then in a very funny, very smart slow burn that only seems smarter over repeated listens, he opens up the national conversation on race. Much of the speech that Trump and his supporters derided as “PC” was speech that wandered into a cultural minefield, and they seemed mad at the mines for exploding. Cenac more explicitly than Ansari tried to get past the simple racist/not racist binary and explore white privilege and white supremacy. “When I say ‘white supremacy,’ I don’t mean the KKK because that’s not white supremacy,” Cenac says. “That’s white supremacy cosplay.” He rips white supremacy for being lazy, for failing to think of lives outside of your own.
Dave Chappelle hosted Saturday Night Live on the Saturday after Trump’s election, and the Washington Post ran a transcript of his monologue just as the New York Times ran Ansari’s. Both Ansari and Chappelle ended on semi-conciliatory note, perhaps because performance on a platform as big as Saturday Night Live invites a degree of statesman-like equanimity. Ansari said, “So, look. We’re divided. It’s O.K. We’ve always been divided by some of these big political issues. It’s fine. As long as we treat each other with respect and remember that ultimately we’re all Americans, we’ll be fine.” He concluded with something for everybody: “If you’re excited about Trump, great. He’s president. Let’s hope he does a great job. If you’re scared about Trump and you’re very worried, you’re going to be O.K., too. Because if you look at our country’s history, change doesn’t come from presidents. Change comes from large groups of angry people. And if Day One is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I have ever seen.” Chappelle concluded his monologue by saying, “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m going to give him a chance, and we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.”
Cenac didn’t try to bridge any divides that way. His platform didn’t suggest it, and the national wounds the election revealed remain open and raw today, so his response seems more honest. He feels the impulse to make nice too, but he also honors the impulse to go off on someone’s ass as well.
What happened white people? Because this one’s on you. You might say you didn’t vote for him, and maybe that’s true. Maybe you didn’t, but statistically, at least one of you motherfuckers did. And I’m not saying we should turn on the lights and have a witch hunt. Try to figure out who it is. Everybody takes turn yelling at him. Maybe glue a Trump hat to his forehead like a scarlet letter that makes sure he can never get coffee in Brooklyn again.
He concedes that he’s not going to do that, “but I did bring some Super Glue.”